Why Manchester United are looking beyond results to assess Ole Gunnar Solskjaer future

  The evolution of data in football has barely taken a pause for breath in the previous decade, but one area the numbers have been slow to i...

 

The evolution of data in football has barely taken a pause for breath in the previous decade, but one area the numbers have been slow to infiltrate is in how we assess the performance of a manager.

The data-led revolution has changed the way we think about players and performance, giving metrics that can support what we see with the naked eye, or make us question our own wisdom.

But when it comes to managers the mainstream conversation rarely moves beyond win percantages. When a manager is sacked his win percentage will be mentioned, often compared with his predecessors through one of those nifty Sky Sports News graphics, but how much is that really telling us?

For example, according to win percentages David Moyes was a better Manchester United manager than Louis van Gaal. Is that a fair assessment? Not many United fans would agree with it.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rates better than both, winning 55.66 per cent of his games, only behind Jose Mourinho since Ferguson's retirement. Is that a fair reflection of his performance in charge? It might be, but it's not the way clubs are looking at the success or otherwise of their managers anymore.

Omar Chaudhuri is head of football intelligence at 21st Club, a company that specialises in data analytics in football and who work with a number of top clubs in analysing the performance of their current boss, or finding ideal names for a shortlist based on specific criteria if they have a vacancy. He explains why the conversation has moved on from the most basic of metrics, at least inside the game.

"There’s a couple of reasons win percentages are outdated," Chaudhuri told the MEN.

"One is it doesn’t account for the quality of a team and the players at a managers disposal. Clearly, someone coaching at a bottom half Premier League team is going to have a lower winning percentage than one at a top-half team, but it doesn’t mean he's necessarily a worse manager.

"It’s also used to evaluate head coaches at top clubs. The growth in inequality in the Premier League is such that clubs at the top end of the table are winning more and more points every season.

"Teams are winning the title with close to 100 points now, if you compare that to when Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were winning leagues it was closer to 80 points, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the coaches today are better than the coaches then."

Chaudhuri accepts assessing players is much easier, given the range of statistics available every time they step on the pitch, but evaluating managers is much harder thanks to the hidden nature of most of their work.

"With a manager 90% of the work they do you don’t see, it’s in training sessions, team talks, pre-match preparation, that kind of stuff, you just see the 10% on the touchline and in the interviews afterwards," he said.

But football is still a "very data-rich industry" and that gives it an advantage over industries that also must make critical appointments when there isn't that level of assessment available.

Solskjaer is approaching the halfway stage of his three-year United contract and while there is no talk of a new deal just yet, it's clear this middle season could be decisive in seeing how long his Old Trafford tenure lasts.

Results will evidently come into any assessment of Solskjaer, but there is more to it than that. United have backed him to lead a "cultural reset" at the club, something that can't be measured by the percentage of games he's won. Clubs can get a much more comprehensive overview of performance from a head coach or manager than ever before, however.

"It comes down to what a club’s priorities are. For some cubs staying in a league is paramount so we have metrics to what extent a team is being improved by a head coach," explains Chaudhuri.

"In terms of the areas we look at, it’s to what extent a team has improved under that head coach, have they moved up the table?

"You can also do things like accounting for the amount of spend in that period of time, so through statistical modelling you can create an expectation of what you expect the club to be for a level of spend, by looking at the marketplace for spending and wage bills, that will give you an assessment of the impact the coach is having.

"Then you can look at style of play impacts. If a team has clearly moved to another style of play you can get a sense that the head coach has had an impact on the team and certain clubs will have a philosophy they want to be filled and they can evaluate the head coach against that philosophy by having quite clear metrics on that."

Another myth that Chaudhuri is only too happy to kill is that trophies are a defining factor in the success of a manager, something often held against Mauricio Pochettino.

"There aren’t many trophies available. There’s one for winning the Premier League and right now there are probably only two clubs who can win that. The Champions League is probably even harder to win," he said.

"Cups are a lower priority to a degree, you can also end up with a series of bad draws, or a freaky goal knocks you out, or you’re trying to rest and rotate because you’ve got other priorities.

"All those things can mean it’s difficult to win trophies so it’s not always the best barometer of success, you want to be looking at the process a coach is going through and is that going to help us win trophies down the line."

Something often held against Solskjaer is that his time in charge of Molde and Cardiff has no bearing on his ability to manage United, but Chaudhuri highlights the example of Graham Potter to suggest that doesn't have to be the case.

His move from Ostersunds in Sweden to Swansea was considered a risk by many, but 21st Club modelling actually suggested it was a natural step across.

"In our model we can benchmark the level of clubs and leagues across Europe. When he [Potter] was at Ostersunds, in our model, he took them from a non-league level all the way up to a Championship level," said Chaudhuri.

"He showed he was capable of coaching players at that Championship level so in many ways Swansea was a natural step across. He might have seemed to some like a real step up but in that case it was a step across."

Fundamentally 21st Club are trying to help clubs take the noise away from the discussion around the success of their manager or a new appointment.

"Noise is such a good word. Football is a low scoring sport, you can play well and lose and play poorly and win, that can happen for several games in a row, therefore how good you really are is masked by the league table, which tends to be a bit of a liar," said Chaudhuri.

The 'noise' is certainly something United can relate to. As one of the world's biggest clubs the discussion around Solskjaer's position is endless. After last night's unfortunate defeat to Paris Saint-Germain #OleOut was trending on Twitter, as it is after every game United lose.

But while those defeats will form part of the picture, they are only a detail in the larger understanding of Solskjaer's work at United. This might be a crucial season for Solskjaer, but victories and defeats will only tell some of the story when all is said and done.


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